Book prize shortlist is a time-travelling feast

A compelling collection of books offering inspirational takes on themes such as belonging, travelling across borders and overcoming personal struggles form the shortlist of Britain’s longest-running literary prizes.

The international list for this year’s James Tait Black Prizes features authors with links to America, Denmark, Finland and Oman with stories transporting readers to America, England, Kosovo and Renaissance Portugal.

James Tait Black - authors 2023

Fiction contenders

Contenders for this year’s fiction prize include a meditation on an Omani student’s experiences building a life for herself in Britain, and a reimagining of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield set in the Appalachian Mountains of the United States.

Other nominated titles are a story of the passion and terror of the love affair between two young men in the shadow of war in Kosovo, and a debut novel revisiting the lives of trailblazing feminists from the 19th and 20th centuries who helped shape the modern world.

The awards – presented by the University of Edinburgh since 1919 – are the only major British book prizes judged by literature scholars and students.

Luminous collection

This year the judges described the shortlist as a luminous collection of books by an exciting mix of award-winning writers and emerging talent.

The four novels shortlisted for the £10,000 fiction prize are: Bitter Orange Tree by Jokha Alharthi, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth (Scribner, Simon & Schuster); Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber); Bolla by Pajtim Statovci, translated from Finnish by David Hackston (Faber & Faber); and After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz (Galley Beggar Press).

James Tait Black - book covers 2023

Quality Biography

The shortlist for the £10,000 biography prize includes the story of a woman’s journey from a sheltered childhood in Oklahoma to an adulthood of learning and love affairs, and a chronicle of a year-long coastal trek from the northernmost tip of Denmark to Holland.

Also in the running are a memoir about the writer’s apprenticeship with authors Elizabeth Hardwick and Barbara Epstein and his introduction to the New York literary scene, and an exhilarating account of two early modern Portuguese travellers and their competing views of the world.

The four biographies shortlisted for the £10,000 prize are: Homesick by Jennifer Croft (Charco Press); A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast by Dorthe Nors, translated from Danish by Caroline Waight (Pushkin Press); Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan by Darryl Pinckney (Riverrun); and A History of Water: Being an Account of a Murder, an Epic and Two Visions of Global History by Edward Wilson-Lee (William Collins).  

The shortlists will be reread, annotated, and discussed by students and scholars to decide the winners of both the prizes, which will be announced by the University on Wednesday 26 July.

The shortlist and winners will also be discussed as part of a James Tait Black sponsored event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August, which is taking place at the University’s Edinburgh College of Art.

The only thing more impressive than the historical and emotional range of these works is the way they center their storytelling in elegantly and movingly rendered characters. 

Benjamin BatemanFiction Judge

 Absorbing, resonantly voiced, and beautifully realised, these life-writings open fascinating and various worlds, and searchingly inquire into the transformative relations between literature and life.

Dr Simon CookeBiography Judge

The annual Prizes are for the best work of fiction and biography written in or translated into English published in the previous 12 months.

The James Tait Black Prizes began celebrating books in the early 20th century after Janet Tait Black née Coats – part of the renowned threadmaking family J & P Coats – made provision in her will for the creation of two book prizes, to be awarded annually in memory of her husband, James Tait Black.

Since the prizes’ inception 100 years ago, the list of winners forms a who’s who of literary distinction with Angela Carter, Graham Greene, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh among the winners.

Equally stellar names appear on the list of biography winners, including Peter Ackroyd, Martin Amis, Quentin Bell, John Buchan, Richard Ellmann, Hermione Lee and Lytton Strachey.

In the last decade Amit Chaudhuri, Craig Brown, Lucy Ellmann, Zia Haider Rahman have joined the illustrious list.

James Tait Black Prizes 

How to Read a Novel

The University also offers a free online course in partnership with Edinburgh International Book Festival to give readers the chance to engage with judges and other readers on the shortlisted fiction books.

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) – called ‘How to Read a Novel’ – draws on the James Tait Black fiction shortlist and has attracted nearly 60,000 participants from across the globe since it launched in 2017.

Free online course